AS JEANNIE LARSON heads home from her office in Chanhassan to her 140-acre family farm in Princeton (not too far from Lake Wobegon), she feels herself relaxing as suburbs give way to country. It’s a common human experience: Minnesotans leave the Cities and go north to their cabins. Suburbanites garden. People from cold climates go to Hawaii. We like having plants in our homes and workplaces. Going to the natural world for rejuvenation is something that we tend to take for granted. But Jeannie Larson has discovered that nature can also be a powerful remedy for people with chronic pain, brain injuries, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, Parkinson’s disease, mental illness, addictions, eating disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease.
As coordinator of the Therapeutic Horticulture program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum for the past 10 years, Larson trains professionals, works with clients directly, provides resource information (including a semi-annual newsletter), and also manages the Arboretum’s Therapeutic Horticulture Library and the Clotilde Irvine Sensory Garden. Last year she trained nearly 1,300 professionals on the therapeutic benefits of horticulture. Those trainees came from a wide range of public and private agencies that included Caledonia Green, the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, and the National Kidney Foundation.
This spring Larson has been teaching a course on “Therapeutic Landscapes” in the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing graduate minor program. She is also the primary consultant for the Center’s rooftop labyrinth and healing garden.
Asked how she came to all these interests, Larson said, “I learn differently from most people; I have a very special way of seeing the world, and that has been a challenge for me, as well as a gift. The way I came to have that positive acceptance was through the outdoors and through nature; nature was my therapist—my teacher.
“My folks recognized that I learned differently,” Larson continued, “and they took us on trips so that I would have experiences to reinforce the classroom knowledge. For example, as I struggled with American History in the traditional structure of school, my family would travel over spring break to a historic site like Williamsburg, and I would experience the facts from American History class in a very practical, hands-on manner. It was the experiential participation that helped me to make the connection to understanding academic concepts.
“Then as I entered college, I went to a school in Oregon known as the Oregon Extension, an experiential alternative college in the Greensprings Mountains, and there I learned environmental science concepts by experiencing them. We learned about habitats because we walked outside and we participated with them. I also participated in the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming, where we lived outdoors for five months learning low-impact camping and leadership skills while backpacking in the Canyonlands, rock climbing in the Rattlesnake mountains, winter mountaineering, horse-packing, and fly fishing in the Wind River Range, and spelunking the Big Horn and Horsethief caves. Nature was always part of me and who I was.
“Paralleling this academic experience, when I was home I was volunteering at my church, teaching adaptive swimming to people with developmental disabilities, and I was also working at an intermediate care facility for people with severe and profound developmental disabilities. We lived in Lake Elmo, so I’d go out the back door and walk through the meadows or ride my horse in the neighboring farm fields.
“It was during my senior year in college that I began to see the profound effect nature could have as a therapeutic tool. I was working with clients with profound developmental disabilities and one gentleman in particular taught me the healing power of plants. This gentleman had severe self-injurious and self-stimulation behaviors. He always had a rash or abrasions, because he would be always moving his head, always moving his body, always moving, and he was just skin and bones. He never stopped moving, always high muscle tone. One day I brought him out to a little meadow in the back of the facility. I sat with him cradled in my arms, and I was singing, and there were prairie grasses all around us. I was trying to find a way to work with his constant moving in more of a rhythm that coincided with my singing. Then I just felt his body relaxing, decompressing, right into my body! That lasted maybe seven minutes or so, which was extraordinary, just incredible for that individual. This was a turning point. Nature has always been a calming place for me, but it was in this experience that I realized the powerful influence nature could have on healing other people.
“Subsequently I figured out that I ought to be applying all this toward my bachelor’s degree. So I concluded my undergraduate studies at Bethel College in their ‘non-standard specialization’ degree program, calling my work ‘environmental therapy.’ My degree focused on biology, sociology and psychology, and my final thesis paper was built on Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophical philosophy and the Minnesota Camp Hill program (located in Sauk Center, Minnesota).
“Now, 20 years later, as I coordinate this therapeutic horticulture program, I recognize that I still am weaving the foundations of my service philosophy into the work I do. That is, I treat the whole person, addressing the spiritual, psychological, physical, social, and cognitive/intellectual aspects of their being. A program I do each summer with the PEASE (Peers Enjoying a Sober Education) Academy illustrates this approach.
“In the summertime I do an ‘art-in-nature’ program with PEASE Academy students at the Arboretum. The focus of the summer program is for them to learn specific environmental science skills and knowledge and to exemplify these outcomes; we create artwork together that expresses what they have learned. So last summer we were teaching the PEASE Academy students about ecosystems, and that teaching culminated with three art projects. These art projects were made specifically for the participants at the Kaleidoscope Children’s Garden located in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.
“First, we built a shade structure. On the six support posts for the structure there is poetry with images of insects, and on the four corners are finials shaped like little sculptured images of earth, wind, fire, and water. The ridgepole has a poem that they wrote, and the images on the ceiling of the tent form a cycle—sun to seed to grass to grasshopper to frog to blue heron.
“Next to the shade tent we built an eight-foot-tall mosquito. The body has a Mylar ‘blood meal’ in it, and the thorax is wrapped with old garden hoses, and the head is an watering bucket, and there’s an actual working garden hose that comes up through it and forms a little washing sink for the children to wash their vegetables that they harvest.
“And there was an ugly chain-link fence all around the children’s garden. So I asked everyone at the Arboretum to clean out their ‘junk drawers,’ and from the staff ‘junk’—like old little toys and pop bottle tops and beads—the PEASE students made over 250 little 2 inch by 2 inch sculptures, to fit into the openings in the chain-link fence. It was just magical!
“So the Peace Academy students have this summer intensive environmental studies course but it’s not like sitting in a classroom. They’re out looking for bugs, they’re out at the bog, they’re putting on waders, they’re pulling up stuff from the pond, or taking a walk through the Arboretum and learning how to write Haiku poetry. So they’re doing it, experiencing it. Then we make these things, and we bring it to the Kaleidoscope Children’s garden, and we celebrate with the little kids. And the little kids say, ‘Wow, you care enough about us that you would bring this and help!’ Because now they have a sheltered area where they can sit and do their garden instruction, where before they had to sit on straw bales in the sunlight. So this little shelter is just like a million bucks to them. And for them to see these kids from the PEASE Academy, and for the kids from the PEASE Academy to see these little kids, and to say, ‘Wow, we didn’t know each other before, but now we do know each other, and here’s a gift.’ The kids from the city garden learn that they are special—and the students from PEASE Academy learn that they are special too. It’s just so meaningful; I love that kind of thing—the power of nature to improve and heal all of the children.
“It really is quite simple when you think about it...We all rely on the earth. Without the earth we don’t survive. Nature is healing, and so we need to make plants accessible to everybody.”
All the courses Jeannie Larson teaches, whether for children or adults, contain a variety of experiential components. Her “Therapeutic Landscapes” course is to be offered again next spring at the Center for Spirituality and Healing, University of Minnesota.
Judy Steele is a
living-skills teacher and coach with a special interest in the healing powers
of plants. She teaches classes on the healing qualities of flower essences (an
energy healing modality somewhat akin to homeopathy), and also uses them in her
practice. Website: www.schoolforliving.org e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 612-929-0489 (Minneapolis MN)